"Check, check." When Eve Online players hear that word repeated in quick succession, they fall silent. They know an important message is to follow, and that everybody in voice chat needs to hear it. Often, when Michael Pusateri is in a work meeting at NBCUniversal that’s going sideways, the same comms command enters his head. "Check, check. Shut up, everyone."
“They’re all talking over each other and nothing’s getting done and it’s spinning into chaos,” says Pusateri, a VP for Creative Technology who goes by Dunk Dinkle in-game. “Why can’t these people who are being paid so much money behave as well as these people who get paid nothing?”
There is a cliché - or perhaps simply an assumption - that MMO players establish their online lives at the expense of a real one. That the sacrifice in time, organisation and energy required to master raids and run guilds precludes similar success in any demanding professional sphere.
Yet Eve Online has long proven otherwise. For many years, the figureheads of its community have turned out to be leaders in high-powered industries too - corporate attorneys, multinational directors, and employees of space agencies. It’s a trend so consistent that it doesn’t just bust the old myths, but actually suggests there might be crossover skills at play.
“I’ve been playing MMORPGs since Ultima Online came out,” says Pusateri, “and I’ve been a corporate executive since about the same time.” As Dunk, he’s a central figure in Brave Collective, the long-running Eve corp that promises new recruits a place in grand PvP battles for honour, wealth and territory. “When I play Eve over the years I’ve just been applying the same kind of skills I have from the business world,” says Pusateri. “Of how you manage conflict or deal with delegation.”
Perhaps an MMO double life was always on the cards for Scott, aka Ithica Hawk. Growing up, his mother sometimes made dinner early, because she was moonlighting as a raid leader in EverQuest. For a long time, he was jealous of those who had found a single game that held their perpetual attention - but at university, he discovered Eve. Today, he runs and hosts the game’s Alliance Tournaments, juggling his in-game duties with a job in the space industry.
“I think there’s a lot of transferable skills,” he says. “Nothing happens automatically in Eve. If you’re in a fleet, you don’t just hit a button and everybody shoots. You have to tell people to do it. And they have to listen and respond. That dynamic of interacting with people on a personal level, all the way up to huge groups, is a skill that not everyone has. And it’s a skill that is really important in a lot of businesses as well. Eve sets up a lot of people to be successful.”
Hedliner, the Pandemic Legion alliance leader and fleet commander, began his work career and Eve leadership roles more-or-less simultaneously. “I’ve muddled my way through those two things, making mistakes and learning in parallel,” says Hedliner, real name Ed. “One has helped me do the other better, I’ve found.”
Ed now works as a VP at one of the world's largest professional services companies. When he finds himself sitting in the office at 10 o’clock on a Monday night, wondering how he’s going to get finished, he draws on the previous day’s experience of pulling a fleet out of a tricky mess.
“Sometimes Eve can feel more intense than being the leader at your work,” says Pusateri.
“Sometimes Eve can feel more intense than being the leader at your work,” says Pusateri. “It can feel overwhelming. At work I might have 50 people directly under me and a larger group that relies on me. But when I’m Dunk Dinkle, and I send out a Slack message, it goes to 3,500 people. Sometimes I’ll put more concern into crafting an Eve message than a work email.”
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. While some alliances, like Black Legion, are built on the cult of personality that surrounds a single player, others distribute responsibility across leadership teams to avoid burnout and instability. “Goonswarm run their outfit like a Fortune 500 company,” says Ed. “Whereas we’re [Pandemic Legion] more like a motorcycle club.”
Part of the strain comes from the fact that nobody’s obliged to stick around. “Unlike a job, where everyone’s paid to be there so they can buy food and housing and basic needs, in Eve people are there by choice,” says Scott. “They are paying to be there, and they have decided to hitch their wagon to your train and see where that takes them. They can leave anytime. If you do a good job at it, then more people join and other people hear about it, and then it grows and grows.”
If you’re not doing a good job as a leader in Eve, you can’t rely on fellow players biting their tongues, the way an employee might. “In Eve it can become personal really, really quickly,” says Ed. “It’s very contrasting to the airs and graces of professionalism in the workplace.”
"Marshalling is exactly what I’m doing now in my day job. It feels like they’re one and the same.”
As such, Eve leaders have to learn how to truly sell their ideas - to whip up excitement and maintain morale during a long engagement. “Years ago in Eve I used to run a small low-sec alliance,” says Scott. “And doing that, marshalling was a skill that you had to learn.”
Bringing about an invasion, with the goal of kicking an enemy group out of their wormhole, isn’t just a material or strategic problem. Fundamentally, it involves convincing your comrades to commit to long hours for a couple of weeks - all in the name of fun, rather than real-life profit. If an Eve leader doesn’t have the support of the rank and file, or if the battle turns out to be a miserable grind, then a military push can quickly collapse.
Once the art is mastered, however, it’s readily transferred back to reality. During the pandemic, Scott changed jobs, switching from a big multinational to a startup. “It feels a lot more like an Eve corporation,” he says. “There’s a lot of selling people on ideas, and pulling stuff from nowhere to make things happen. Marshalling is exactly what I’m doing now in my day job. It feels like they’re one and the same.”
Eve capsuleers rarely outline their achievements on their CVs. But now and again, a top player leverages their skills to land a real-life gig. Orion, a data analysis and marketing specialist in Ed’s crew, used his in-game riches to demonstrate his ability to a stockbroking firm. “They were like, ‘This is astounding, you did this in your spare time? Because everyone else gets paid for it,’” says Pusateri. “The amount of IT infrastructure we have built for our groups is higher than at most companies.”
The lockdowns and remote working that came with Covid-19 have only weakened the membrane between Eve and work leadership. “Particularly during the pandemic, the lines between the two have become completely blurred,” says Ed. “It’s hard to tell where my paid job stops and my Eve job picks up after that. In one window you’re in your Citrix work environment, and then you minimise that and go straight into Eve. The two things require you to be two different people simultaneously, which is quite hard to compartmentalise.”
Occasionally, when executives deal with difficult partners, they wish for the wild west of Eve. A good war can be cathartic. “There are times, in real life, when I’m frustrated with a company we’re doing business with,” says Pusateri. “They’re not holding up their end of the bargain. And they’re lying to me, and I’m mad at them. Well, there’s nothing I can really do. My threats are fairly hollow. I can talk to procurement and put a black mark on their record, but I really can’t do anything. In Eve, I can strike up a war machine and punish you for doing this thing.
“There’s times I wish I could declare war,” he adds, ominously. “‘You sold me this software and it didn’t work. I want more than my money back, I want you to suffer.’”